Trading Places: Her Mom's Fried Chicken & My Mom's Chicken and Dumplings
Anne Byrn on The Legacy of Her Mother's Fried Chicken
In honor of Mother’s Day, best-selling cookbook author and fellow newsletter writer Anne Byrn and I are trading places! Anne and I met through Substack’s Food Intensive Fellowship, and it has been a pleasure getting to know her and her work better. (Her cookbook, Skillet Love, which she is generously donating for a giveaway - see below! - is on my wishlist.) Anne shared the recipe for, and the touching story behind, her mother Bebe’s Fried Chicken. Meanwhile, I shared my mother Carol’s addictively delicious Chicken and Dumplings (plus the recipe’s surprising origin) over on Anne’s newsletter, Between the Layers. If you’d like to read more from Anne, click here.
— xo Leah
The Legacy of My Mother’s Fried Chicken
By: Anne Byrn
My mother, Bebe, was an outstanding cook and self-taught because she could not fry an egg when she and my father married in 1949.
But through the years of raising three daughters and feeding a large extended family and a multitude of friends, her cooking became well known. I was especially fond of her fried chicken.
Some families discussed the weather, crops, politics, or their history, but mine spent much time talking about meals while they were eating one. My mother was the youngest of five girls growing up in Nashville in the 1930s and 40s.
She encouraged my sisters and me to cook along with her and to listen so we could hear when the chicken stopped whistling as it fried because this was a sign the moisture had cooked out and it was done.
Mother simmered a milk gravy to serve alongside fried chicken and rice, and she cooked turnip greens the way my father liked them, fried corn cakes in a split second, sliced ripe tomatoes from the garden, and always had a dessert for the table - either peach cobbler in the summertime, or banana cream pie in the winter. These were foods she created with ease and love most every day.
Some Secrets of My Mother’s Fried Chicken
What I remember about her fried chicken was that she placed the chicken pieces in a large stainless steel bowl with cold water, ice, and salt. It was to draw out the blood, she said, and I think we all know today it brined and tenderized the chicken, too.
But that was after she had cut up the whole chicken into two breasts, one tender wishbone piece cut from the top of the breasts that my sisters and I fought over, two thighs (we called them second joints), two legs, but no wings. I don’t ever remember her frying chicken wings, and she didn’t leave them attached to the breasts either, possibly because her mother didn’t do it that way.
So I’m guessing that those wings as well as the chicken back went into the trash because my mother didn’t instinctively know how to make homemade chicken soup. Not Jewish or Italian, it wasn’t a part of her food story.
I know this sounds absurd. How can someone be a fabulous cook and not make their own chicken soup? And sadly, we ate Campbell’s chicken and noodle on sick days.
After soaking the chicken for a couple hours, she’d drop the chicken pieces, a few at a time, into a brown paper grocery bag (they were all paper back then) filled with flour, which had been seasoned well with salt and pepper.
She’d twist the top shut and shake that bag hard until each piece of chicken was thoroughly coated. She’d pull the dredged pieces out of the bag and repeat this ritual until all the chicken was flour-coated.
On the white speckled Formica counter sat a shiny, vented GE electric skillet, the kind you’d find in most every home where chicken was fried back then. It was plugged in and half filled with Crisco oil, and once a speck of water dropped from her hand into the oil roared up with a hiss, then, hand on hip, my mother would slide one piece of chicken at a time carefully into the hot oil and back up a few steps each time so the oil wouldn’t pop up and burn her hands, which it sometimes did. That’s how you learned to step back a little faster the next time.
I Know Chicken Was Smaller Back Then
She would fry those seven pieces of chicken all at one time because they would all fit into that electric skillet. I tried this when I was writing my book, Skillet Love, but found you cannot fit seven pieces of chicken in a 12-inch skillet at the same time these days.
They’re not just crowded, they just don’t fit! I did go in search of smaller chickens, around 2 1/2 pounds, and you can find them, and a cut-up smaller chicken will fit.
My mother fried the chicken until it was browned on one side, turned it with a fork, and browned it on the other, and then the skillet cover went on, the steam vents were closed, and that chicken cooked until we couldn’t hear a whimper.
She drained the crisp, crackly, golden pieces on paper towels, always paper towels. And it sat there and we children would move in as close as we could to catch a whiff and maybe snatch a crumb before dinner was served.
That was one of the most powerful food memories of my life, and I know that my mother’s fried chicken awakened my senses.
All good things must come to an end
I was in college and coming home for a visit. My mother asked what I’d like for dinner while I was home, and I replied fried chicken.
“I don’t fry chicken anymore, Anne.”
My heart sank.
How could the mother who raised us on pan-fried chicken so good you didn’t order it anywhere else but home just throw in the towel? Cast aside all those feel good memories and unmatched aromas? It would take years before I understood what she meant.
When children leave home, mothers get a part of their lives back. They have more time to spend with their friends and cook what they want. It’s really fair game.
My mother and father traveled more after my sisters and I were on our own. They ate out more. They cooked at home less.
But to children, we all still want our moms to be like they were when we were young and to make the foods that evoke our past. Until we grow up.
And see that the heartbreakingly wonderful part of being a mother, and also being a daughter, is coming full circle and realizing there is a pattern to life, then following it, having faith in it, and when the time is right spreading our wings to cook our own meals for our own families and create new memories that morph out of what we knew and what we have yet to discover.
Recreating My Mother’s Chicken in a Cast-Iron Skillet
If you think about it, cast-iron skillets and fried chicken are joined at the hip. The iron skillet helps chicken turn out crispy and delicious, and the fat and heat of frying chicken ensures the skillet stays black and shiny.
This symbiotic relationship is woven into southern cooking, and yet my mother wouldn’t dare fry chicken in cast iron. And while she never told me why, I think it had to do with being the youngest and being born four years before the Depression and getting pulled out of college to take a job with the telephone company to help the family make ends meet.
My mother’s father died when she was 12, and my grandmother who worked for the Red Cross as a volunteer had to become the breadwinner.
Cast iron to my mom meant country and poor, and she wanted neither of those. She was a city girl, and once she married my dad, she wanted the latest appliances, avocado green mid-century accoutrements that had nothing to do with hard times and looked to prosperity ahead.
In fact, her outlook on life, even when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer when I was a young mother with three little ones, was only hopeful. But she died a short two years later, just after Thanksgiving in 2001.
And who would have thought I would learn about hope through fried chicken? Or become a more creative cook because of fried chicken? Or not stress about a little spattered oil on the stove or the waft of grease in the air because of my love of fried chicken?
I saw a GE electric skillet that looked exactly like my mom’s on Etsy this week and ordered it. I can’t wait to recreate her electric skillet chicken, but in my eyes, you can’t beat cast iron.
I let the chicken fry in peanut oil first, then pour off the grease and bake it to doneness in the skillet in the oven. It is an homage to my mom and the way I cook simply and honestly today.
I think she’d approve.
Happy Mother’s Day! - Anne Byrn
Iron Skillet Pan-Fried Chicken
I recreate that fried chicken of memory - crispy outside and moist inside - by using the cast iron skillet to brown the chicken and the oven to cook it to doneness. Fried chicken purists may consider this heresy, but they obviously haven’t tested as many ways to cook fried chicken in a skillet as I have. I have browned chicken on both sides, then covered the skillet with the lid and let it steam until done. I have inverse-fried the chicken, covering it first until nearly done and then uncovering until it fried to doneness. But these methods and others were too hands-on, messy, and cumbersome and resulted in underdone or overdone chicken. I settled on my favorite method, this recipe, for my cookbook, Skillet Love. It has the perfectly browned crust and tender chicken that I remember from my mother’s kitchen. But it’s a lot simpler. By placing the skillet of chicken in the oven to cook to doneness after browning, I can make a salad, steam some rice, set the table. I like to think of it as new-fashioned iron skillet chicken.
Makes 6 servings
Prep: 15 to 20 minutes
Soak: 1 hour
Cook: 26 to 33 minutes
1 whole chicken, 2½ to 3 pounds, cut up into pieces
Ice water to cover the chicken
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon Creole or other seasoning salt, if desired
2 cups (475 ml) peanut oil, for frying
1. Place the chicken pieces in a large bowl and cover with ice water. Add the tablespoon of salt and stir to combine well. Let rest at room temperature for 1 hour. This old-school method was used to draw out the blood of freshly cut-up chicken. And it still makes the fried chicken taste better.
2. When time to fry, place the flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, and seasoning salt in a large brown grocery sack. Shake to combine. Drain the chicken from the ice water, and add a few pieces of chicken at a time to the seasoned flour. Shake the chicken to coat each piece well. Set aside on a rack. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
3. Place the oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet to measure 1/2 inch deep. Place the skillet over medium-high heat, and when hot, about 350 degrees, place the thighs and breasts, skin-side down, in the oil. Let cook, undisturbed, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the skin is deeply browned and crisp. Turn with tongs to cook on the other side until browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate to rest. Repeat the process with the remaining chicken pieces.
4. When all the chicken has cooked, drain the oil from the skillet. Place the chicken back in the skillet, skin side up, and place the skillet, uncovered, in the oven. Bake until the chicken has cooked through (registers 165 degrees), about 20 to 25 minutes.
More About Anne + a Cookbook Giveaway!
Thank you Anne Byrn for being our guest contributor this week, and for donating a copy of Skillet Love as a cookbook giveaway! (I’ll do a random drawing of paid subscribers on Friday, and will announce the lucky winner.)
Anne is the author of Skillet Love, A New Take on Cake, American Cake, American Cookie, and The Cake Mix Doctor. She is formerly a food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a graduate of École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. Anne lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find her at an annebyrn.com, on Twitter and Instagram, and on her Substack newsletter, Between the Layers.
One Last Thing: On The Supreme Court and Roe vs. Wade
This dual Mother’s Day post has been in the works for a couple of weeks, and I am so happy to get to share it with you. But late last night, I read the news that a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court indicated that the court will vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. And if (seemingly when) they do, that vote will officially end legal abortion’s status as a constitutional right.
My brain is spiraling with shock and grief - far too much for me to write anything coherent. But before this newsletter gets published, I will say this: Choosing to start a family is a sacred act of love. It is a gift beyond compare. But it must remain a choice - for the health and autonomy of women and all birthing people, for the well-being of children, and for the strength of our communities.
If you are able, here is a place to donate once and support 80 local abortion funds working to keep abortion access safe and affordable across the United States.
- xo Leah